TCS Daily

The Comeback Kid

By Stefania Lapenna - February 13, 2006 12:00 AM

With elections just a few weeks away, strange new scenarios are unfolding in Italy - thanks largely to a major financial scandal that broke out at the end of 2005. Unlike previous scandals involving well-known alimentary companies such as Parmalat and Cirio, the current one is believed to involve some prominent politicians on the left. Prosecutors are investigating a bank takeover deal following a failed bid to control the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL) by Unipol, an insurance company controlled by left-leaning cooperatives, which also battled with Spain's BBVA bank for the control of BNL.

In Italy, most major banks have ties to the left. In December 2005, the right-leaning newspaper Il Giornale further shed light on the role played by prominent leftist politicians in Unipol's bid. The newspaper published excerpts from a phone conversation between Piero Fassino, the secretary-general of the Left Democrats (DS) and Unipol's chairman, Giovanni Consorte. During the conversation, previously recorded by magistrates investigating the case, Consorte gave details of the bid to Fassino, who promptly exclaimed: "Good. Now we're the bosses of a bank."

Magistrates are also investigating meetings between Consorte and some other leftist politicians, such as Romano Prodi and the current mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni.

Unipol's plans to take control of BNL failed; now the left's election chances seem to be fading. Recent polls have found that the ruling center-right coalition has gained some 8 points and now is only a point and half behind the left. Such a quick change in the electorate's attitude toward the two coalitions may not be due mainly to the scandal, as many Italians are not interested in this case or don't understand it. But of course it has played a role in the center-right resurgence, especially with undecided voters, who make up 20 percent of the electorate, and also with many disaffected right-leaning voters. (Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi this week easily won a no-confidence vote in the Chamber of Deputies.)

More troubles are on the way for the left, however, as a result of the banking scandal. Voters are urging their leaders to clarify the role they played in the affair, even though nobody doubts that they will go to the polls and eventually support leftist candidates. Still, the damage could split the leftist vote, according to left-leaning political analysts, who say that if the center-left factions do not stop blaming each other for the current situation they risk losing.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi is taking advantage of the left's problems to shore up support among undecided voters in his bid for five more years in office. He has been ubiquitous on television (he does, after all, own most of the stations), participating in every talk show, political debates and even sports chat. Analysts say his strategy is working, although it's hard to know how long it will be effective.

If current polls are to be taken seriously, Berlusconi's coalition has reason for optimism about its chances on March 19. However, it must not count its chickens before they are hatched. With investigations on Unipol's bid and the role played by the left under way, new and important details might further influence the electoral debate and the voters' choice.

Nobody can predict the outcome at this point. But this unpredictability represents a significant improvement for Berlusconi. The left, which has long claimed to be the most likely winner, is now conceding that the game is back on and it will not be an easy one. Predicting the winner is still impossible, but many analysts are starting to say, for the first time in months, that Berlusconi's re-election chances are better than ever.

Stefania Lapenna is an Italian activist and author of the weblog Free Thoughts.


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